The kiss of deception, p.17
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.17

           Mary E. Pearson
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  “It felt like it was. It was the first one that mattered.”

  She had told me as we were drawing water for our baths that everyone could hear us yelling from the dining room, so Berdi and Gwyneth had started another round of songs to drown out our words, but Pauline had heard me shout go away, so she never thought she’d end up interrupting a kiss. She’d already apologized several times, but I told her that nothing could take away from the moment.

  She lifted a pitcher of warm rosewater. “Now?”

  I stood and she let the fragrant water trickle over my head and down my body into the tub. I wrapped myself in a towel and stepped out, still reliving every moment, especially that last brief exchange looking into each other’s eyes.

  “A farmer,” I sighed. “Isn’t that romantic?”

  “Yes,” Pauline agreed.

  “So much more genuine than a stuffy old prince.” I smiled. He worked the land. He made things grow. “Pauline? When did you—” And then I remembered it wasn’t a subject I should broach with her.

  “When did I what?”

  I shook my head. “Nothing.”

  She sat on the end of the bed, rubbing oil onto her freshly bathed ankles. She appeared to have forgotten my half-said question, but after a moment she asked, “When did I know I had fallen in love with Mikael?”

  I sat down across from her. “Yes.”

  She sighed, pulling her knees up and hugging them. “It was early spring. I had seen Mikael several times in the village. He always had plenty of girls around him, so I never thought he’d noticed me. But he had. One day as I walked by, I felt his gaze on me, even though I didn’t look his way. Every time I went by after that, he stopped, ignoring the attentions of those around him, and he watched me until I passed, and then one day—” I watched her eyes looking at the opposite wall but seeing something else. Seeing Mikael. “I was on my way to the dressmaker, and he suddenly fell in step beside me. I was so nervous I just looked straight ahead. He didn’t say anything, just walked beside me, and when we were almost at the shop, he said, ‘I’m Mikael.’ I started to reply, and he stopped me. He said, ‘You don’t have to tell me who you are. I already know. You’re the most exquisite creature the gods ever created.’”

  “And that’s when you knew you loved him?”

  She laughed. “Oh, no. What soldier doesn’t have a posy of sweet words at the ready?” She sighed and shook her head. “No, it was two weeks later, when he’d exhausted every posy at his disposal, and he seemed so dejected, and he looked at me. Just looked at me.” Her eyes glistened. “And then he whispered my name in the sweetest, weakest, most honest voice, ‘Pauline.’ That’s all, just my name, Pauline. That’s when I knew. He had nothing left, but he wasn’t giving up.” She smiled, her expression dreamy, and resumed massaging oil into her foot and ankle.

  Was it possible that Pauline and Mikael had shared something true and real, or had Mikael just drawn from a new well of tricks? Whichever it was, he had gone back to his old ways and warmed his lap now with a fresh supply of girls, forgetting Pauline and tossing aside whatever they had. But that didn’t make her love for him any less true.

  I bent over and rubbed my hair with the towel to dry it. I want to feel your skin, your hair, run every dark strand through my fingers. I pulled the wet strands to my nose and sniffed. Did he like the scent of rose?

  My first encounter with Rafe had been a contentious one, and not by any stretch had I been smitten the way Walther was when he saw Greta. And Rafe certainly hadn’t wooed me with sweet words the way Mikael had Pauline. But maybe that didn’t make it any less true. Maybe there were a hundred different ways to fall in love.

  From the loins of Morrighan,

  From the far end of desolation,

  From the scheming of rulers,

  From the fears of a queen,

  Hope will be born.

  —Song of Venda

  CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

  I nearly burst with joy watching Pauline dress in the new clothes I’d bought her, a loose peach-colored shift and delicate green sandals. After weeks of wearing the heavy clothing of Civica or her drab mourning clothes, she blossomed in the summer hues.

  “Such a relief in this heat. I couldn’t love it more, Lia,” she said, admiring the transformation in the mirror. She turned sideways, pulling on the fabric to judge its girth. “And it should fit me through the last spike of autumn.”

  I placed the garland of pink flowers on her head, and she became a magical wood nymph.

  “Your turn,” she said. My own shift was white with embroidered lavender flowers sprinkled across it. I slipped it on and twirled, looking at myself in the mirror and feeling something akin to a cloud, light and liberated from this earth. Pauline and I both paused, contemplating the claw and vine on my shoulder, the thin straps of the shift leaving it clearly visible.

  Pauline reached out, touched the claw, and shook her head slowly as she considered it. “It suits you, Lia. I’m not sure why, but it does.”

  * * *

  When we arrived at the tavern, Rafe and Kaden were loading the wagon with tables from the dining room and cases of Berdi’s blackberry wine and preserves. As we approached, they both stopped mid-lift and slowly set their heavy loads back down. They said nothing, just stared.

  “We should bathe more often,” I whispered to Pauline, and we both suppressed a giggle.

  We excused ourselves to go inside and see if Berdi needed help with anything else. We found her with Gwyneth in the kitchen, loading pastries into a basket. Pauline stared longingly at the golden-crusted blackberry scones as they disappeared layer after layer into the basket. Berdi finally offered her one. She nibbled a corner self-consciously and swallowed.

  “There’s something I need to tell you all,” she blurted out breathlessly.

  For a moment, chatter, shuffling, and clanking of pans stopped. Everyone stared at Pauline. Berdi set the scone she was about to add to the basket back on the tray.

  “We know,” she said.

  “No,” Pauline insisted. “You don’t. I—”

  Gwyneth reached out and grabbed Pauline’s arms. “We know.”

  Somehow this became the signal for all four of us to go to the table in the corner of the kitchen and sit. Gentle folds pressed down around Berdi’s eyelids, her lower lids watery, as she explained that she had been waiting for Pauline to tell her. Gwyneth nodded her understanding while I looked at all of them in wonder.

  Their words were sure and deliberate. Hands were squeezed, days counted, and sorrows shouldered. My hands reaching out to become part of it all—the agreement, the solidarity, Pauline’s head pulled to Berdi’s chest, Gwyneth and I exchanging glances, so much said with no words at all. Our relationships shifted. We became a sisterhood with a common cause, soldiers of our own elite guard promising to get through this together, all of us pledging to help Pauline, and all in the space of twenty minutes before there was a tap at the kitchen door.

  The wagon was loaded.

  We went back to our duties with Pauline buoyed among us. If I’d felt like a cloud before, now I was like a planet winking from the heavens. A burden shared wasn’t so heavy to bear anymore. Seeing Pauline’s lighter steps made mine glide above the ground.

  Berdi and Pauline left to load the remaining baskets, and Gwyneth and I said we would follow after we’d swept the floor and wiped the crumbs from the counters. We knew it was better to deter furry gray visitors now than watch Berdi chase them with a broom later. It was a small task that was quickly done, and when I had the kitchen door halfway open to leave, Gwyneth stopped me.

  “Can we talk?”

  Her tone had changed from only minutes earlier when our conversation flowed as easily as warm syrup. Now I heard a prickly edge. I closed the door, my back still to her, and braced myself.

  “I’ve heard some news,” she said.

  I turned to face her and smiled, refusing to let her serious expression alarm me. “We hear news every day, Gwyn
eth. You need to give me more than that.”

  She folded a towel and laid it neatly across the counter, smoothing it, avoiding eye contact with me. “There’s a rumor—no, very close to a fact—that Venda has sent an assassin to find you.”

  “To find me?”

  She looked up. “To kill you.”

  I tried to laugh, shake it off, but all I managed was a stiff grin. “Why would Venda go to such trouble? I don’t lead an army. And everyone knows that I don’t have the gift.”

  She bit her lip. “Everyone doesn’t know that. In fact, rumors are growing that your gift is strong and that’s how you managed to elude the king’s best trackers.”

  I paced, looking up at the ceiling. How I hated rumors. I stopped and faced her. “I eluded them with the aid of some very strategic help, and the truth be known, the king was lazy in his efforts to find me.” I shrugged. “But people will believe what they choose to believe.”

  “Yes, they will,” she answered. “And right now Venda believes you’re a threat. That’s all that matters. They don’t want there to be a second chance of an alliance. Venda knows that Dalbreck doesn’t trust Morrighan. They never have. The ferrying of the king’s First Daughter was crucial to an alliance between them. It was a significant step toward trust. That trust is destroyed now. Venda wants to keep it that way.”

  I tried to keep suspicion from my voice, but as she related each detail, I felt my wariness grow. “And how would you know all this, Gwyneth? Surely the usual patrons at the tavern haven’t spilled such rumors.”

  “How I came by it isn’t important.”

  “It is to me.”

  She looked down at her hands resting on the towel, smoothed a wrinkle, then met my gaze again. “Let’s just say that my methods loom large among my regrettable mistakes. But occasionally I can make them useful.”

  I stared at her. Just when I thought I had Gwyneth figured out, another side of her came to light. I shook my head, sorting out my thoughts. “Berdi didn’t tell you who I was just because you live in town, did she?”

  “No. But I promise you how I know is no concern of yours.”

  “It is my concern,” I said, folding my arms across my chest.

  She looked away, exasperated, her eyes flashing with anger, and then back again. She breathed out a long huff of air, shaking her head. She seemed to be battling her regrettable mistakes right before me. “There are spies everywhere, Lia,” she finally blurted out. “In every sizable town and hamlet. It might be the butcher. It might be the fishmonger. One palm crosses another in return for watchful eyes. I was one of them.”

  “You’re a spy?”

  “Was. We all do what we have to do to survive.” Her manner jumped from defensive to earnest. “I’m not part of that world anymore. I haven’t been for years, not since I came to work for Berdi. Terravin is a sleepy town, and no one cares much about what happens here, but I still hear things. I still have acquaintances who sometimes pass through.”

  “Connections.”

  “That’s right. The Eyes of the Realm they call it.”

  “And it all filters back to Civica?”

  “Where else?”

  I nodded, taking a deep breath. The Eyes of the Realm? Suddenly I was far less concerned with a grunting barbarian assassin combing the wilderness for me than with Gwyneth, who seemed to lead multiple lives.

  “I’m on your side, Lia,” she said, as if she could read my mind. “Remember that. I’m only telling you this so you’ll be careful. Be aware.”

  Was she really on my side? She had been a spy. But she didn’t have to tell me any of this, and ever since I arrived, she had been kind. On the other hand, more than once she had suggested that I return to Civica and live up to my responsibilities. Duty. Tradition. She didn’t believe I belonged here. Was she trying to scare me away now?

  “They’re only rumors, Gwyneth, probably conjured in taverns like our own from lack of entertainment.”

  A tight smile lifted the corners of her mouth, and she nodded stiffly. “You’re probably right. I just thought you should know.”

  “And now I do. Let’s go.”

  * * *

  Berdi had gone ahead in the wagon with Rafe and Kaden to set up the tables. Gwyneth, Pauline, and I walked to town at a leisurely pace, taking in the festive transformation of Terravin. The storefronts and homes, already glorious in their bright palettes alone, were now magical confectionery decorated with colorful garlands and ribbons. My conversation with Gwyneth couldn’t dampen my spirits. Indeed, it oddly elevated them. My resolve was cemented. I would never go back. I did belong here. I had more reasons now than ever to stay.

  We arrived at the plaza, full of townsfolk and merchants spreading their tables with their specialties. It was a day of sharing. No coin would be traded. The smell of roasted boar cooking in a covered pit dug near the plaza filled the air, and just past that, whole slinky lamprey and red peppers sizzled on grills. We spotted Berdi setting up her tables in a far corner, throwing out gaily colored tablecloths to cover them. Rafe carried one of the cases from the wagon and set it on the ground beside her, and Kaden followed with two baskets.

  “It went well for you last night?” Gwyneth asked.

  “Yes, it went very well,” Pauline answered for me.

  My own answer to Gwyneth was simply a wicked smile.

  By the time I reached Berdi, I had lost Pauline to a table of hot griddle cakes and Gwyneth to Simone, who had called to her from a miniature pony she rode upon.

  “Don’t need you here,” Berdi said, shooing me away as I approached. “Go, have fun. I’m going to sit here in the shade and take it all in. I’ll see to the tables.”

  Rafe was just returning from the wagon with another case. I tried not to stare, but with his sleeves rolled up and his tan forearms flexing under the weight, I couldn’t look away. I imagined his work as a farmhand that kept him fit—digging trenches, plowing fields, harvesting … what? Barley? Melon? Other than the small citadelle garden, the only fields I had experience with were the vast Morrighan vineyards. My brothers and I always visited them in early autumn before harvest. They were magnificent, and the vines produced the most highly prized vintages on the continent. The Lesser Kingdoms paid enormous sums for a single barrel. In all my many visits to the vineyards, though, I had never seen a farmhand like Rafe. If I had, I certainly would have taken a more active interest in the vines.

  He stopped next to Berdi, setting his case down. “Morning again,” he said, sounding short of breath.

  I smiled. “You’ve already put in a day’s work.”

  His eyes traveled over me, beginning at the garland on my head that he had taken some pains to hunt down, to my decidedly new and slight attire. “You—” He glanced at Berdi sitting on a crate beside him. He cleared his throat. “You slept well?”

  I nodded, grinning.

  “What now?” he asked.

  Kaden came up behind Rafe, bumping into him as he set a chair down for Berdi. “The log wrestling, right? That’s what Lia said everyone is the most excited about.” He adjusted the chair to Berdi’s liking and stood tall, stretching his arms overhead, as if the morning of fetching and hauling had been just a little warm-up. He patted Rafe’s shoulder. “Unless you’re not up to it. Can I walk you, Lia?”

  Berdi rolled her eyes, leaving me to squirm. Had I created this quagmire when I flirted with Kaden last night? Probably, just like everyone else, he’d heard me yelling at Rafe to go away, but he evidently hadn’t heard anything else.

  “Yes,” I said. “Let’s all walk together, shall we?”

  A scowl crossed Rafe’s face, but his voice was cheerful. “I’m all for a good game, Kaden, and I think you could use a sound dunking. Let’s go.”

  * * *

  It wasn’t exactly a dunking.

  Once we wove through the crowd, we saw a log that was suspended by ropes, only the log wasn’t suspended over water as I had assumed, but over a deep puddle of thick black mud.
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  “Still up for it?” Kaden asked.

  “I won’t be the one falling in,” Rafe replied.

  We watched two men wrestle atop the log while the crowd cheered valiantly at every push and lunge. Everyone gasped collectively when both men teetered, arms swinging to regain balance, lunged again, and finally fell together facefirst. They came up looking like they’d been dipped in chocolate batter. The crowd laughed and roared their approval as the men trudged out of the muck, wiping their faces and spitting out mud. Two new contestants were called. One was Rafe.

  Rafe’s brows shot up in surprise. Apparently they were calling them in random order. We had expected him and Kaden to be paired. Rafe unbuttoned his shirt, pulled it loose from his trousers, and took it off, handing it to me. I blinked, trying not to stare at his bare chest.

  “Expecting to fall?” Kaden asked.

  “I don’t want it to get spattered when my opponent plummets.”

  The crowd cheered as Rafe and the other contestant, a tall fellow of muscular build, climbed the ladders to the log. The game master explained the rules—no fists, no biting, no stomping on fingers or feet, but everything else was fair play. He blew a horn, and the bout began.

  They moved slowly at first, sizing each other up. I chewed my lip. Rafe didn’t even want to do this. He was a farmer, a flatlander, not a wrestler, and he’d been goaded into the contest by Kaden. His opponent made a move, springing at Rafe, but Rafe expertly blocked him and grabbed the man’s right forearm, twisting it so that his balance was uneven. The man swayed for a moment, and the crowd shouted, thinking the match was over, but the man broke free, stumbled back, and regained his footing. Rafe didn’t give him more time than that and advanced, ducking low and swiping behind the man’s knee.

  It was over. The man’s arms flailed back awkwardly like a pelican trying to take flight. He tumbled through the air as Rafe looked on with his hands on his hips. Mud sprayed up, dotting the lower part of Rafe’s trousers. He smiled and took a deep bow for the crowd. They howled in admiration with extra cheers for his theatrics.

 
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